Deeply Awake — Radio Man 5-3-13 By Kathy Vik
In the next room is a twelve-year-old boy. You can hear him grunting. An occasional cry of frustration comes from his room. The door is closed. Instructions are: do not go in there. Do not knock, unless you hear a signal of genuine distress. You just get to listen to it.
This boy received a radio kit in the mail. One of those Heath kits, for the elders in the crowd. It comes with a circuit board, soldering ribbon, dials and gizmos, just the standard radio set-up.
It came with instructions, but the instructions are not clear. They seem, to the kid, to change every single time he refers to them.
He doesn’t even know to plug in the soldering gun.
He’d been to his friend’s house and listened to his friend’s homemade radio, and was amazed at the clarity. His friend could get, like, a million stations.
Our twelve-year-old friend, when he heard his friend’s radio, that first broadcast in Russian, or was it Hindi? Could that be French? Crystal clear, like that big, booming foreign authority was reading the news from his friend’s chipped, blue desk in Toledo.
That was it.
He had to have a radio.
This twelve-year-old was so frantic to get his radio working. Just days after his friend showed him that little personal radio, our twelve-year-old friend had stumbled upon a couple of articles about this kind of communication. He realized there were things he could do with a kit like this that, maybe, nobody else had even considered doing!
It was clear to him, in those first few years, that he had an affinity for this kind of thing. Even though he still didn’t understand how anything went together, he just understood this way of life. People who thought it important to put together these boards, these wires. Folks who needed to be in front of a microphone talking. Yes, this makes sense. And so his work continued.
You and I, we’d have given up long ago.
Do you know, for all the love and car that guy had for his kit, and for all the studying he did, and for all the years of obsession, he never did get that his radio kit to squawk at him.
Folks began questioning his sanity when he moved into adulthood. They told him to put away childish things.
He could see no other option, so he complied. He found a big box, one that would accommodate all the gizmos he knew he’d find along the way, attending to his other obligations. He knew he’d always be on the look out for good radio stuff. So he found that big box, and he stuck it in the corner of his basement.
He didn’t admit it to anyone, but he knew, he just knew inside his deepest parts, that he was really putting the box away because the parts he needed to make the whole thing rock wouldn’t be available for awhile. But then, he’d forget that, and he’d get real mad at himself for not getting it to work.
He’d sit sometimes, while pursuing the goals of a warehouse manager for an upscale grocery store, and be filled with bitterness. He told himself that if he’d only gotten his kit to work, he wouldn’t have to worry about balance sheets and the those greedy bastards’ profit margin.
He felt what he was doing with his life as sort of morally bankrupt, or at the least, that he was adrift. But he didn’t exactly know how to make anything right. He was mad at that damn radio kit. Mad at himself. Mad at his crappy job. Mad at his recliner.
He remembers, in his less frustrated, idle moments, when he was younger, single, less encumbered. He’d obsess over his kit, as a kid, and even into twenties, on his days off. He’d finally gotten so disgusted with himself for not figuring his kit out, he’d grab a jacket and go hang out at places where other radio kitters might hang out. He’d dimly remember that there used to be others he knew who liked being radio men. He’d smile then, and go back to work.
As a boy and young man, within radio circles, he was shy, so even when he let himself get in the groove, start finding out where these cool people hang, he never really extended himself, or rarely, and never did he tell anyone, not another living soul how his kit is coming along. Not because it’s a secret. No. Because he’s embarrassed that he hasn’t figured it out himself.
Once, when he was on vacation, a couple years ago, bored and getting sun, waiting for his kids to get done with the Disney movie, he thought about a couple of old friends of his. They’d once been obsessed like him, and had become expert ham operators.
He remembers them, on that bored, hot afternoon, and realizes that they were kind of like guides of some kind, like master teachers who just sort of inserted themselves into his awareness. He tried, but couldn’t remember how those friendships came to be. He realized that two of them were still his close friends, but that they never talked about radios anymore.
And so passed his life, as he would go into this room and hunches over his kit and swears, but never for long. The constant defeats with his radio kit seem to sting less now, and the possibility that he might be able to, now that he’s older, torch this thing up, helped the time, the years, pass.
Toward the end of it, he found that he only took out his kit, his old childhood radio kit, when he was drunk. Something about being speechless and hanging onto the bedpost with both hands, having that kit to look at, sitting there on the chair, something to focus on as the room spins and a familiar escape from his futility overtakes him once again.
By his sixth decade, he’d reached a decision point, even though he didn’t know it.
One night, a couple of years ago, our insomniac radio man had a particularly difficult and sleepless night. He realized that things were not going as he’d liked, and that how he does his life day by day is what will wind up “happening” the next time he sits down like this, at 90.
All these years, he’d loved radio. For too long, he realized one night not long ago, he’d had his beloved radio kit packed away in the closet.
In his dreams and sometimes at the first hint of awakening in the morning, his whole life, he knew, he could hear that radio, faintly broadcasting forgotten stories in a foreign tongue from its box, covered as it was, now, with dials and wires and conductors and capacitors, just stuff he’d thrown in there, stuff he’d found on his travels. He’d come to remembering that box, that abandoned pursuit.
Sometimes he feared he could hear those transmissions during his waking hours. Recently, it had become a nightly visitation.
But then he’d shrug. He’d clear his throat. He’d sip some scotch. He’d recall yesterday’s triumphs and failures, tomorrow’s obligations, and his mind would churn and crank again, with things that could be counted and conqurerd and concluded.
And off he’d go, to sleep, into another day, another disquieted night, and on it went for our radio lover, years of discouragement, years of telling himself it just wasn’t time, years of telling himself that his love for that radio is a petty and foolish thing.
One sleepless night, he trundled into the living room and sunk into his chair, feeling the only thing he did anymore, defeated.
Here, again, another night, another quiet night, and not one scintilla of peace. The quiet and the dark feel real, but there is no comfort in this darkness, he thought. I am alone, he thought.
I need company, he thought. And slowly, quietly, he cried.
You see, on that crucial night, this man, this fellow who loved the radio, really, more than anything he’d ever encountered, he came to realize something.
He looked back on his life, on this dark and silent night, and understood that he had a couple things wrong.
He thought back on his life, the really big moments. He remembered when his mom was dying, when he went to the lake to fish, to get away. His wife and kids were at home, and there he was, drunk off his ass, fishing. After seven hours of fishing, never catching, he remembered collapsing, sunburned and spent, behind the wheel, knowing he had to get back to his obligations, wishing he could die instead of his mom. He turned on the engine, and Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” came on.
Sitting in his recliner, a glass of Bushmill’s in his hand, he remembered then how it felt to hear that song at that moment. “Don’t worry, about a thing, coz every little thing, gonna be, awright…”
He smiled, there in the dark, there in the stillness.
And from there, it really didn’t take long for the soundtrack of his life to start coming back to him. The music, the texture which had informed his break ups, his free spirited, authentic work style, the songs he’d played when he found out his wife was pregnant, and, yes, there it is.
That beautiful one, that distant memory finally made clear by the song that was on the night of graduation, there on a starry night on a hill, getting stoned with his buds, watching the whole world open up in front of them.
He understood, in one moment, that he’d never been without music, without the radio! And the truth was, this music was coming from his bones as much as it was coming from any radio.
And, there in the dark, it hit him.
He still has his old radio kit!
He not only kept it, but he’s been adding to it all these years, stuff he knew, just knew, was gonna come in handy, that would one day fit in the plans he’d had for his radio kit.
He’d, he realized, stunned, barely clutching his tumbler, he’d been keeping up with personal electronics this whole time. There hadn’t been much on the web a lot of the time he went searching for the newest information, but always he’d get confirmation, when he googled, “Radio Kits,” that his old information was really solid. There just wasn’t that much going on in the personal radio area of human endeavor all the years he was busy learning how to be a warehouse man.
He remembered, there in the dark, how this kit used to confound him, and made him feel weak and stupid and ineffective. Before stirring, before committing to getting up and looking for that ancient box, he tried to be real clear about why this might be a good idea.
Isn’t that box, that kit, isn’t that the very thing that he’d felt defined him as a bit of a loser? He’d made the rounds and he knew that there really were expert personal radio men. He’d met them. Folks who could dance rings around what he knew about being a radio man. He knew that. And because he knew that, he knew the value in being a radio man, in pursuing becoming a radio man.
And yet, with his recliner hugging his ass and the twenty year old scotch hugging his innards, thinking about the assholes he’d have to calm down tomorrow over the stuff they get upset about every single god damned day, there in the dark, sipping his scotch, he wondered.
I know I love the radio, he thought to himself.
I know I want to put my own radio together, that would be fun.
I know I can earn a living, and I think I am pleased enough with these accomplishments. It think my work stands on its own.
What about just six months of being a radio man?
How about just a year of it?
If I find that box, and I start tinkering, it might get pretty interesting.
Yeah. I’ve earned a year.
Just a year off, to learn how to be a radio man. But I’ll keep going at the warehouse. And after my year as a radio man, then it’ll finally be out of my system.
A little drunk, feeling that nice scotch flush, and a warmth he’d forgotten, of recognition, of completion he stumbled down the basement and struggled every single box he’d ever squirreled away.
This was not a one-night, drunk-on-scotch sort of endeavor, he realized.
So, quietly, diligently, routinely, he dug through the basement. He knew it would be better to be quiet while he plowed through all of this old stuff. Best to just do this when his loved ones are sleeping.
The night he found that old box, he silently cried, hugging it, rocking. This is something, one of many, many things, he will never tell a living soul. As he tenderly held that box, and then gently lifted the cracked flaps of the box, he knew that this was the sort of homecoming that just doesn’t have to be explained. It’ll show on my face, he thought to himself.
All last year, every day, every spare minute he had, he was hunched over that dinky radio kit. His wife, his kids, even his friends became aware of what he was doing, because as the months passed, and his obsession receded into great love and respect for his first love, he could no longer hide it.
He’d bore his loved ones and sometimes frighten his colleagues with the tremendous enthusiasm he’d discovered.
He was a little shocked that, even when that radio was silent and dark, even after he’d done what he thought was the perfect work around, and was met yet again with an unresponsive radio, even then he knew he was on the right track.
His friends were the one to help him tone it down a bit. They pointed out that he was becoming a little unbalanced.
He kept that in mind, as he gleefully soldered and planned.
Yes, he’d finally asked, and figured out how to use his soldering gun.
He noticed as he worked on it, and found out how much he really loved the whole thing, just the whole radio thing, that some of his friends were no longer interested in him. But it didn’t matter all that much to him, because about six months ago, one night, on a very bleak and cold Christmas night when his confidence had bottomed out but his love for the project remained strong, one night just six months ago, as he was once again stowing it on the shelf, his very own, stubborn, silent dull and still radio, it came on.
He spent an amazing few minutes simply listening. The station that was coming in, he realized, was, miraculously, the one he knew he’d been searching for since his frustrated youth.
It was a music, a sound, that transported him. He knew, then, that he had always been on the right track.
So, since then, he’s had a few things make sense.
He has come to see that he’d always been an expert at this radio thing, he’d been built to be a radio man! He admitted, unashamedly, his love for and understanding of trade journals, textbooks on electricity and magnetics, the bio-physics of sound conduction. He’d even began studying human psychology and biology!
And all of this, this great love, how his life was now on fire for being a radio man, he saw, one night, sitting once again in his recliner, sipping some lemon water, quiet, this night a light and gentle one, he understood, and he smiled.
There had been expert radio operators, expert radio designers, expert sound engineers, expert playwrights, entering and exiting his life, teaching him, giving him help, all this time!. Even the guys at the warehouse. Smiling, shaking his grey head, on this particular night, he remembered how he’d made it his first priority, when given the green light for that warehouse, high quality speakers and satellite radio. That had been job one.
How was this all possible?
He was hit with a great melancholy then, a great still sadness.
He thought about that kid.
The one in his room, sweating and grunting and crying over his radio kit.
A lifetime it took, a lifetime to build his own radio.
He listened to it then, in the stillness of yet another night slipping away, surrendering to memories and thinking, he let his mind get quiet, told his thoughts to be still.
He listened then that Bach Allegro, he was quietly transported, finally, clearly, permanently, he thought, he might feel permanently stronger, quieted, touched.
Afterward, his thoughts were very clear.
He understood now that his love of music had been what carried him along, and it had always been there. He’d wanted to have it in his own personal radio kit, he’d wanted to do it his way, and always knew he would, and yet, and yet…
He’d found that, once his radio had come alive, that he knew instinctively what to do. He began experimenting with the information he remembered from others he’d encountered all that time ago, at trade shows and in class. He’d forgotten. Shaking his head in indulgence, a mother’s smiles on his lips, “I’d forgotten.”
This final night, his radio glowing, in a lull between the music he’d now allowed to fill his home, every moment, from waking to sleeping, in this simple lull, there was an old quiet, an older peace, an ancient sort of stillness. He knew there’d be another song in a moment, but here, he could think. And he finally wanted to. He smiled and he relaxed.
He understood, finally, that this anxiety he’d always carried, even into business meetings where he was known as a titan of commerce, there he was, in every meeting, in every bed, in every queue, there he was, a frustrated kid, angry at himself, at his situation, at this thing he found that he could neither make functional nor discard.
It had all been purposeful, and maybe, he thought, maybe it had all been for the purpose of this moment.
This is a particularly pleasant moment, the man thought.
I think I am quite pleased with how all of this turned out.
He smiled then, once again. He discovered, after his radio flickered on that first night, that when he smiles, he feels his radio getting turned on again. He has come to know something of which he never speaks: when he grins, it is as if that little kit starts glowing and then all his dreams are finally, suddenly, miraculously realized. He feels this moment of wonder now, at will, whenever he smiles.
He smiles a lot anymore.
So, he stands. He stretches. He smiles, and he goes to bed.
The radio, in his house, anymore, is always left on.